Review: Hell or High Water

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DIR: David Mackenzie • WRI: Taylor Sheridan • PRO: Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Sidney Kimmel, Julie Yorn • DOP: Giles Nuttgens • ED: Jake Roberts • DES: Tom Duffield • MUS: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis • CAST: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Katy Mixon

 

One of the highlights of 2013 was an unexpectedly tense and exciting prison drama called Starred Up. It had its flaws but primarily showcased the future potential for Jack O’Connell in a leading role. It was a breakout for director David Mackenzie as well, indicating an unexpected talent for telling stories about hardened, macho men in testosterone fuelled surroundings. Back again this time with Hell or High Water, Mackenzie continues to display an ability to take tired genres and reinvigorate them with a nuance that has been sorely lacking from a lot of male-driven thrillers in recent years.

Two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) devise a plan to rob a series of banks together in order to pay off their mother’s debt before the banks take her land. Tanner and Toby Howard then take the money to nearby casinos in order to exchange it for untraceable dollars, which they can return to the same bank branches that they’ve robbed in order to pay off the sizeable debt with the bank’s own money. But their plans are threatened to be thwarted when a soon to retired sheriff (Jeff Bridges) leads an investigation with a determination to track them down before they rob again.

Hell or High Water is a western that’s as simple as they come. Characters derive from well used archetypes of the genre – the renegade, the antihero, the wise, old sheriff – but they feel refreshing in Mackenzie’s hands. Part of the reason why Hell or High Water works so well is because Mackenzie allows each actor their turn to divest the stoic machoism that often stifles films of this nature. It’s a film about men being men, yes, but Hell or High Water drops the pretence, exposes the vulnerability behind the masks, shows the afflictions and inner turmoil that troubles each man in the story. It takes away the power fantasy that the western genre often perpetuates and allows the characters to become human again. The results are evident on the screen. The characters feel more realistic and the dramatic heights become more impactful because we see the humanity behind the virility.

Although at times it suffers for its sympathetic portrayal of machismo fraternal bonds. Jeff Bridges plays a sheriff who seems almost reluctant to carry out his investigation efficiently simply because it means he can postpone his retirement as much as possible. It’s an interesting character but he also spouts frequent racist remarks to his Native American/Mexican partner to try and make him more likable. It’s a contrived attempt at creating a morally grey playing field for the cops and robbers, but the film had achieved it without the racist jokes having to be there and it leaves an uncomfortable impression throughout the running time.

Likewise, Hell or High Water suffers like so many films about hard men by confining women in the narrative to little more than window dressing. It becomes almost comical how often big bosomed women take some time out of their day to suggestively throw themselves at Chris Pine while he broodingly recollects his life story for the audience. One scene involving Ben Foster feeling antagonised by a young woman for talking to his brother is heavily edited and blocked in such a way that suggests Foster’s harassment and their contretemps had more criminal implications just below the camera. It’s simply the case that such films that want to humanize straight masculinity as a complex and conflicting experience often feel compelled to diminish other genders and ethnicities in order to do so and it’s a shame that Hell or High Water follows this trend rather than be an exception to the rule.

2016 has been a rather lacking year for cinema and Hell or High Water stands out all the more for being one of the most satisfying films that the year has had to offer. Performances from the always compelling Bridges and Foster are to be expected but Chris Pine also stands out as an actor who has charismatic potential if given more suited roles. Hell or High Water is a by-the-numbers Western but also doesn’t need to be anything more. It illustrates that, with enough tweaking and refinement, even a generic story can be made into a tense pacing thriller that can still surprise while trying to be as entertaining as possible.

Michael O’Sullivan

101 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Hell or High Water is released 9th September 2016

Hell or High Water – Official Website

 

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Review: Café Society

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DIR/WRI: Woody Allen • PRO: Letty Aronson, Edward Walson • DOP: Vittorio Storaro • ED: Alisa Lepselter • DES: Santo Loquasto • CAST: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Steve Carell

That time of year has come again where Woody Allen dishes out another film about neurotic socialites. His proficiency at adhering to a scheduled annual release since 1982 would be awe-inspiring if his filmography didn’t also continually exemplify how axiomatic it is to favour quality over quantity. If hard pressed to name the last Woody Allen film that not only was great as a film but stood to demonstrate why he deserved such a lauded reputation, the answer would have to be Crimes and Misdemeanours all the way back in 1989. However, does anyone really care that he hasn’t made a brilliant film in nearly 30 years? Now, at 80 years old, Woody Allen’s films don’t matter anymore even to him, only as far as he can continue to make them without interference. Critically speaking, that puts Café Society in a difficult spot. Depending entirely on a person’s particular affection for Woody Allen’s style, Café Society is either a serviceably passable crowd-pleaser or an underwhelming and lazy outing from a once great director.

Café Society, at its very heart, is a love story in the classical Hollywood tradition. Jesse Eisenberg plays the young, naïve, and overwrought Bobby Dorfman who has just stepped into tinseltown in hopes of becoming a big success. His infatuation with Hollywood glamour quickly dissipates but Bobby becomes smitten by a young woman named Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) who seems to be the only unpretentious one left in L.A. A romance quickly blossoms between the two, but Vonnie secretly has been having an affair with Bobby’s uncle (Steve Carell) for whom they both work. An increasing confliction affects Vonnie as she continues to see both men, unsure of whether to marry for love or financial certitude. Suddenly, when Bobby finds out about his uncle and Vonnie, a decision must be made about who she wants to spend the rest of her life with.

Ever since the 2012 documentary on his life, it’s become somewhat common knowledge that Woody Allen’s stories derive from scribbled ideas on yellow pages which he stuffs in his bedside locker. It seems as though Café Society had just one idea on its page, in a two-minute scene which concludes the film and which serves as the emotional centre of the entire story. It’s undoubtedly a satisfying payoff, one of the most inspired moments of the film, but it makes the preceding hour and a half feel unpolished and extremely lacking.

The themes, the jokes, even the common highbrow references are unignorably perfunctory this time around. Café Society tries to embrace the romantic and fantastical quality of Hollywood films from long ago, but it’s inconsistent. Sometimes the surrounding nature of the young couple in love will create a boarder that captures the lovers as if they were in a gorgeous frame in a picture gallery. Sometimes cinematography and blocking is so bland that it looks as though Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are simply reciting their lines before the actual take. Music is especially grating because of how unusually uninspired it is for a Woody Allen film. In Hannah and Her Sisters, Rodgers and Hart’s famous “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” is used as a recurring motif that reflects the inner turmoil facing characters who become enamoured by one another while feeling an overwhelming responsibility to commit to the partner they married or chose. In Café Society, Rodgers and Hart’s famous “Manhattan” is used as a recurring motif because, well, the story takes place in Manhattan eventually. Such decisions made in music and other parts of the film are not necessarily bad choices, just especially lazy and uninteresting.

Acting feels particularly stilted and awkward this time around. Part of the reason for this, possibly, is due to the new visual formatting in which the film is shot. Café Society marks Woody Allen’s first foray into digital filmmaking and there’s a clear unease with the transition. Allen’s affection for classical Hollywood alongside the story’s demand for a more archaic and exaggerated style in performance creates a jarring disconnect with the digital quality of the frame. Scenes can often feel artificial when it tries to be realistic. There are two standout performances, however, that transcend this hurdle. Firstly, Corey Stoll as Bobby’s Mafioso brother, showcasing an actor who can often play tough men with brilliantly comic exaggeration when given the right role as Corey has been given here.

The true star, however, is Kristen Stewart. Stewart has often been maligned for her acting style and if anything can be unequivocally suggested about her post-Twilight career is that she’s made every effort to divest her former reputation. Stewart charms her way through every scene of Café Society. She performs effortlessly with a zestful energy that has been missing from many actresses preceding her who have stepped into the women that Woody Allen writes. Vonnie, as a character, doesn’t quite suit Kristen Stewart’s performance style but she conveys such emotion through Vonnie that the dissonance is eventually forgotten.

Café Society is not a terrible film by any means and surpasses the recent waning quality of Woody Allen’s late career. It still wouldn’t be considered good though. It’s an unimpressively mediocre romantic comedy that has enough little things to save it from being boring, but the clear lack of effort can be frustrating for those who expect more from a film by Woody Allen.

Michael O’Sullivan

96 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

Café Society is released 2nd September 2016

Café Society – Official Website

 

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Review: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

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DIR: Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone • WRI: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone • PRO: Judd Apatow, Rodney Rothman, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone • DOP: Brandon Trost • ED: Craig Alpert, Jamie Gross, Stacey Schroeder • DES: Jon Billington • MUS: Matthew Compton • CAST: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping marks the third attempt by Judd Apatow to produce a successful musical comedy and he should just give up. His first attempt still remains his best, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which was funny when it remembered it was a parody of the musical biopic, and I doubt anyone remembers Get Him to the Greek. This time it’s The Lonely Island’s attempt to poke fun at the music industry, which would seem promising considering their music already accomplishes that goal. What the comedy rap group have made instead, however, is their equivalent to “Weird Al” Yankovic’s UHF. But somehow even less funny.

Do you remember the only dull, slow period of This is Spinal Tap when Nigel Tufnel leaves the band? Popstar made an 87-minute movie around that entire section. Andy Samberg, the most recognisable of The Lonely Island, plays Connor4Real, whose ego leads him to focus on a solo career that falls apart over the course of his world tour when his latest album fails to catch public attention. It’s odd to have a Lonely Island film where the trio remain separate for 70 minutes of it but how exactly can anyone make a plot which centres around The Lonely Island. Their comedy derives from lyrically parodying the narcissism of pop music and the stupidity of bro-styled club anthems (their most famous is still probably “Jizz In My Pants”) and that comedy remains present throughout the early sections of the mockumentary. The song “Finest Girl,” about a kinky woman who requests “fuck me like we fucked Bin Laden,” is the most discussed moment and funniest song in Popstar but is performed much more effectively in the promotional music video that’s free to watch on YouTube.

The problem of Popstar is its inability to frame its comedy around making fun of the pop industry. Many of the jokes are aimless and recycled bits about smoking weed or just nonsensical for the sake of being random and unpredictable. When it does focus on music, the jokes are softball digs at an industry ripe for mocking. There’s no fun had at the sorry excuses to appear edgy and offensive by the likes of Miley Cyrus in a desperate attempt to look relevant. Nor at the vanity and pretence of high-brow sophistication which motivates Jay-Z to associate himself with Marina Abramović and performance art. Instead, there are jokes about how pop musicians are terrible at making social and political songs (a joke better achieved by Russell Brand in his rendition of “African Child (Trapped in Me)” from Get Him to the Greek). A minor joke about how music is made through an overwhelming amount of collaborative producers to sell records feels hypocritical in a film that packs more cameos than jokes in order for the movie to sell. Will Arnett features in painfully unfunny TMZ parodies ingeniously renamed CMZ, and it’s almost impossible to tell if Mariah Carey was paid to look annoyed or if she’s sleeping through her five seconds on camera.

Popstar simply doesn’t go far enough. Connor4Real is an unlikable protagonist but The Lonely Island forget that his repugnance is exactly the point. His complete lack of relatability should make for comedy but they desperately try to make Connor sympathetic in a way that feels less mocking of the generic attempts to pull a viewer’s heartstrings as other reality TV/documentaries about musicians are oft to do and more out of sheer laziness. Even the mockumentary aspect itself often feels forgotten through many of the scenes which, personally, I’m willing to bet was only used for a single joke/Snoop Dogg cameo. Popstar is a frustratingly bad comedy because it had so much potential but wastes it for a cheap laugh and gags like Justin Timberlake in a fish suit.

Michael O’Sullivan

86 minutes
16 (See IFCO for details)

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is released 26th August 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – Official Website

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Review: Tickled

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DIR: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve • PRO: Carthew Neal • DOP: Dominic Fryer • ED: Simon Coldrick • MUS: Rodi Kirkcaldy, Florian Zwietnig • CAST: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr

Never have the words “this tickling empire is bigger than we ever imagined” felt more ominous and unsettling. Tickling seems innocuous; to say you’re watching a documentary on tickling will undoubtedly have people bemusedly tilt their heads. What could be so sinister about tickling? David Farrier, New Zealand journalist and director of Tickled, asks the very same question in what becomes a surprisingly tense and uncomfortable documentary about online harassment

Farrier is mostly unknown outside of his home country. He’s a television reporter who does segments on pop culture, but is mostly known for reports on the quirky and bizarre side of New Zealand society. Stumbling upon a website dedicated to “Competitive Endurance Tickling,” he thinks he’s found his next report and asks for an interview with the production company, Jane O’Brien Media, but is greeted to a slew of homophobic and threatening emails that personally attack David for his sexuality. Footage from the website is shown which makes the sport of tickling even more bizarre. Young athletic men are cuffed down and strapped to beds while other young athletic men do the tickling. The whole thing feels like a surreal homoerotic experience, made more absurd when it’s discovered the men are treated to complimentary first-class plane tickets, hotel rooms, and $1,500-2,000 cash for having participated.

Things very quickly turn into All the President’s Men, as lawsuits are made and representatives fly to New Zealand to tell Farrier personally to stop digging around about Jane O’Brien Media. Men who participated in the tickling are too terrified to give interviews to Farrier, and suddenly it’s revealed that the people who’ve worked for Jane O’Brien media have never even seen her. One of the participants, TJ, recounts his personal experience of applying for a sports scholarship to college and finding the video of him on YouTube. He emailed Jane O’Brien Media to take it down, as he had not expressed permission, and when they failed to respond, he asked YouTube directly. Suddenly, Jane replied to make TJ an “outed gay guy” and the video was uploaded to every online video stream imaginable, with websites created with the sole intention of hosting it alongside his personal address, phone number, and e-mail. Colleges TJ applied for received letters from Jane O’Brien declaring TJ to be a child molester and drug addict, all of which impeded TJ in his personal life, as well as resulting in numerous lost jobs and expulsions from various football teams. That’s when the documentary truly begins to feel more like a horror story than a frivolous piece about tickling.

Tickled is the sort of documentary that has to be recounted in your head over and over again to comprehend that such an incredulous thing could even happen. It’s aware of its own absurdity and uses it to its advantage. The music and style feels borrowed from an action thriller, which creates a perfect dissonance with its subject matter so revelations and anecdotes feel more unbelievable than they already are. At its core, Tickled explores harassment and online abuse but captures the lengths that can be taken by some invidious and abhorrent people in a more effective method than any previous documentary on the same subject. It takes something as simple and deceptively harmless as tickling to fully grasp the possibility that someone can ruin another’s life at the push of a button.

That being said, Farrier has his own jabs at people, much to the discredit of the film. While the “eye-for-an-eye” revenge feels somewhat justified, it’s the treatment of tickling fetishists, paraded as unwell by association with Jane O’Brien Media, that detriments the documentary’s anti-bullying message. A trip down to Florida to learn more about Knismolagnia invites David to a live demonstration by a content and amiable man who makes a living producing tickling and foot fetish videos. As the demonstration occurs, Farrier’s face twists into confusion and revulsion, and then the viewer is greeted to uncomfortable music with overly-fetishized close-ups of the tickled body and the man’s leering smile at the bound, muscular participant in front of him. The effect is that the viewer shares in Farrier’s discomfort, turning a presumably friendly guy into a disturbing pervert. People are entitled to like what they like as long as it doesn’t harm anyone. Farrier seems to forget that while continuing his investigation into Jane O’Brien Media. But, such criticism is small in comparison to what the documentary gets right. Tickled is a brilliant mystery film and simply has to be seen to be believed.

 

Michael O’Sullivan

92 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Tickled is released 19th August 2016

Tickled – Official Website 

 

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Irish Film Review: Bobby Sands: 66 Days

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DIR: Brendan J. Byrne 

 

Amidst one of the earlier interviews about The Troubles in Bobby Sands: 66 Days, Fintan O’Toole suggests that “no one on the islands is not marked by it personally,” a claim which became more understandable during the press screening.  Many began discussing their opinion and knowledge of the Northern Ireland conflict as the documentary continued, but to even ask anyone of a particular age about The Troubles inevitably results in personal stories about bombings and the IRA. The Troubles continue to be a sensitive subject to some, Bobby Sands remaining a divisive figure in Irish history, often split between being remembered as a martyr or a terrorist in previous books and documentaries since his death. As a co-production between Northern Ireland Screen, BBC, and the Irish Film Board, Bobby Sands: 66 Days differs itself from previous documentaries by looking retrospectively at the hunger strike within the larger context of Irish history while remaining as objective as possible.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days, as the title suggests, follows Bobby Sands throughout his hunger strike against the abolition of Special Category Status (essentially being acknowledged as a political prisoner) in prisons during the Northern Ireland conflict. While doing so, the documentary examines Ireland’s history of fasting and starvation as both a romantic and politically charged phenomenon, the effect starvation causes both mentally and physically, the growing violence in Northern Ireland and Sands’ growing involvement in the IRA during the 1970s, the methods used in humanising Sands and the IRA over the course of the hunger strikes, and the impression left by the hunger strikes itself in Ireland, the UK, and the United States about the conflicts. What should be obvious is that a lot of information gets presented during the documentary but it never becomes overwhelming or convoluted. Instead, Bobby Sands: 66 Days is both an engaging and fascinating overview of one of the most difficult periods in Irish history.

A lot of the documentary’s impact stems from its effective presentation. Both the music by Edith Progue and the animated sequences by Peter Strain and Ryan Kane help to keep the narrative flowing and compelling rhythmically as each piece of information and testimonial accounts from cell mates, prison officers, historians, and politicians are presented one by one. The hunger strikes of 1981 may still be contested, but they’ve also suffered redundancy over time with the barrage of cultural responses in books, films, music, and art within the past thirty years. Bobby Sands: 66 Days accomplishes making an important moment in Irish history as emotionally resonating as it was in 1981 and intellectually satisfying when examining the period in hindsight.

Of course, with as much information as it presents, Bobby Sands: 66 Days should only be considered an introductory overview and not a definitive history of the hunger strikes or The Troubles. In certain moments, a lot of events are cursorily acknowledged, such as Dublin’s relationship to Belfast (the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings of ’74 never gets mentioned) and, most suspiciously, Sands’ involvement in the IRA before the hunger strikes never extends beyond stating he joined. When information such as why Sands was arrested the second time in 1977 is omitted, the impartiality of the documentary becomes suspect. Particularly as it lists and presents the nine prisoners who died alongside Bobby Sands in the same dramatic style as the executed leaders of the Easter Rising in George Morrison’s Mise Éire. These moments serve to undermine perhaps the most interesting aspect of 66 Days, which is its examination of the national mythmaking that generated about Bobby Sands and the hunger strikes.

At one point, Bobby Sands is described as a “brand” and a lot of the documentary’s running time dedicates itself to demonstrating the methodology in creating an idea of Bobby Sands that could both generate sympathy and support from a broader community. The opening of Bobby Sands: 66 Days illustrates this brilliantly as we see Bobby’s prison cell for the dramatic recreations being constructed piece by piece during the credits, symbolically showing the construction of a myth surrounding Bobby Sands. It acknowledges Ireland’s continuous valorising and attachment to martyrdom, linking it to ideas of Jesus Christ, and, in a sense, the methods used in promoting a political ideology is the most fascinating aspect of the documentary overall. Towards its conclusion, an interviewee states that if “you win the imagination, you capture the public,” which the documentary not only exemplifies superbly throughout but is also the primary reason why anyone should seek out Bobby Sands: 66 Days if interested in a significant turning point in Irish history.

Michael O’Sullivan

105 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

Bobby Sands: 66 Days is released 5th August 2016

Bobby Sands: 66 Days – Official Website

 

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Review: Independence Day: Resurgence

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DIR: Roland Emmerich • WRI: Nicolas Wright, James A. Woods, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, James Vanderbilt • PRO: Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, Harald Kloser • DOP: Markus Förderer • ED: Adam Wolfe • MUS: Harald Kloser, Thomas Wanker • DES: Barry Chusid • CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Maika Monroe

Next to Michael Bay, poor Roland Emmerich has always been a critic’s punching bag for the worst director in Hollywood. Independence Day’s maligned legacy as the nadir of Hollywood blockbusters derives primarily from Emmerich’s affectionate speciality for bombastic and over-the-top storytelling, but the film is undeserving of its harsher criticisms. Unlike many beloved films of the ’90s, Independence Day not only remains a well-structured and exciting spectacle, but a favourite among many for its unequivocal optimism that has disappeared from contemporary Hollywood almost entirely. Based on Emmerich’s attachment alone, its sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, is a film that many have undoubtedly made up their mind to hate and bemoan as exemplary of Hollywood’s bloated production of sequels, remakes, and franchises. Admittedly, although Independence Day: Resurgence unquestionably belongs to a long line of unnecessary sequels, the film stands out as one of the better offerings that this year has presented.

Resurgence mostly builds upon its predecessor’s conclusion. Twenty years following the planetary invasion of the last film, Earth has become a utopic and technologically advanced society where war, conflict, and prejudice have completely disappeared. However, all the progress that humanity has achieved becomes threatened when the alien invaders return for revenge with their Queen. This time, armed with a spaceship the size of the Atlantic Ocean, the aliens are determined to leave the Earth barren and humanity to waste away and die by extracting the planet’s core for fuel. Not only must the survivors of the last invasion help stop the aliens, but their children (now grown up and in the air force) must co-operate to stop the alien Queen as well.

The story is simplistic, but Roland’s films work best when they’re simple. The almost playfully innocent mood of its predecessor lingers throughout each scene (our society so advanced that we literally drink “Moon Milk” in space) that its explosions and destruction become as infectiously fun to watch as the crew probably had fun making them. Independence Day cannot be repeated, the tense uncertainty of the first film before the disaster is impossible to recreate.  We know who the aliens are, as do the characters in the film, so Resurgence replaces uncertainty with grandness and scale. The explosion of the White House may have been huge, but it’s common in blockbusters to destroy even an entire city now. Well, to one-up the level of destruction that he’s renowned for, Emmerich goes all out by having the aliens literally drop the country of China onto the United Kingdom, and you get the pleasure of flying through the absolute chaos in 3D. And, unarguably, it is a pleasure to fly through the absolute chaos in 3D.

However, Resurgence struggles with its own colossal size before the film’s third act. As if to sell the movie to those most cynical about a sequel to Independence Day, the country squashing madness is just the first thing the aliens will do, and trying to destroy the Earth itself raises the stakes. But the film becomes directionless, unable to make the tension or disaster bigger without destroying the Earth itself, which results in a deflated and messy finale. The misstep in placing the queen in a spaceship from the first film only serves to remind us that, in truth, the protagonists are only fighting one alien in one spaceship, as opposed to the global invasion of its original that gave Independence Day its sense of scale.

The film manages to be a lot of fun, though. Jeff Goldblum always delivers a charismatically delightful performance with his unusual mannerisms, and you get the sense that Emmerich is channelling himself through Brent Spiner’s deliriously excited scientist who returns to Resurgence with a much more prominent role and love interest. Whether someone likes it or not, Independence Day reshaped the Hollywood blockbuster, and Resurgence makes fun of its impact in genuinely amusing ways, particularly in what happens to the White House and a certain person’s portrait which hangs in its corridors.

Independence Day: Resurgence, much like the original film, relies on a particular mind-set which enjoys goofy and extravagant storytelling. While the first film contains a stronger narrative structure and overall visual design, the primary concern of both films is to have fun, and in this respect, Resurgence provides plenty.

Michael O’Sullivan

118 minutes
12A (See IFCO for details)

Independence Day: Resurgence is released 24th June 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence – Official Website

 

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Review: Demolition

 

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DIR: Jean-Marc Vallée • WRI: Bryan Sipe • PRO: Kevin Feige • DOP: Trent Opaloch • ED: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt • DES: Owen Paterson • MUS: Henry Jackman • CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, Heather Linds

With Jean-Marc Vallée’s previous release being 2014’s Wild, the story of one woman’s journey to rediscover herself, its indistinguishability to this year’s Demolition lingers throughout various scenes of Jake Gyllenhaal literally and metaphorically disassembling parts of his life. This is not an entirely fair criticism of Demolition, for stories of mid-life crises are recycled ad nauseam (Birdman, Lost in Translation, American Beauty, Falling Down, Hannah and her Sisters, 8½, Last Tango in Paris, I could go on) and so trying to recapture the novelty such a story had is a difficulty in of itself.

Yet, somehow, Vallée does, by seamlessly tapping into a cinematic stream of consciousness and on the backbone of its talented cast, Chris Cooper and newcomer Judah Lewis especially, who manage to outshine even the always-excellent Gyllenhaal.

Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins a peculiar means of processing the grief of his recently deceased wife Julia. Inflicted with an aloof apathy precedent to even the fatal car crash, Davis begins a series of semi-formal complaints to a company responsible for a hospital vending machine that failed to dispense his M&Ms. These letters become a cathartic process of his grief and a growing revelation that his rise up Wall Street’s corporate ladder has left him emotionally void and unfulfilled. These letters are also the film’s greatest strength, as Gyllenhaal is at liberty to perform, via voice-over narration, around his lifeless and expressionless physical presence, but also in its ability to jump from place to place, memory to memory, topic to topic, without feeling confusing or strenuous to the viewer, adding a greater dynamic as it playfully inverts the rule of ‘Show. Don’t Tell.’ But Davis receives a reply from the sole worker at customer complaints, Karen (Naomi Watts), who he begins to pursue and befriend, literally demolishing objects of his past with her son (Judah Lewis), in search of something meaningful in his life, which subsequently squanders the twist this film has in treating this time-worn story.

In detailing the synopsis, the story becomes unavoidably kitsch which is the film’s glaring problem. Bryan Sipe’s screenplay doesn’t congeal to the emphatic style and mood Vallée creates in developing Davis’ dejected perspective on reality. During a candlelit dinner with Julia’s parents in their home, when the broken lights literally turn back on after Davis is reinvigorated from a phone call to Karen, the symbolism is so abundant and clichéd that it becomes laughable in how serious the movie commits to these moments, including the titular demolishing.

The icing on the cake comes in the form of Karen introducing Davis to a sweetly content elderly man who sells cannabis on a pier next to a vintage Parisian carousel, which is the only thing Davis wants to repair instead of destroy. You can work out where the story goes from there. Although its saving grace is its cast and Vallée’s adroit direction, Demolition lacks enough originality to draw some vitality into its heavily derivative premise.

Michael O’Sullivan

100 minutes
15A (See IFCO for details)

Demolition is released 29th April 2016

Demolition – Official Website

 

 

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Review: Marguerite

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DIR: Xavier Giannoli • WRI: Xavier Giannoli, Marcia Romano • PRO: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier • DOP: Glynn Speeckaert • ED: Cyril Nakache • DES: Martin Kurel • MUS: Ronan Maillard • CAST: Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret

The idea of “so bad, it’s good” has garnered growing attention during the past decade, primarily thanks to the internet. In film it’s quite common, there was Plan 9 from Outer Space or Reefer Madness, but now, every month brings a new Sharknado, or Birdemic, The Room, or Foodfight, to attention and mockery. Ironic adoration and celebration of the worst artistic efforts is at the centre of Xavier Giannoli’s sixth feature film, Marguerite, and invites the viewer to appreciate the ardour and persistence behind the absolute worst culture has to offer.

Based on the career and life of Florence Foster Jenkins, reputedly the worst operatic singer in history, Marguerite is the story of Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot), an eccentric Parisian socialite, who performs privately to her friends in ‘The Amadeus Club.’ For the sake of politeness and her monetary investments, everyone participates in maintaining her delusion that she is extremely talented (to understand how wrong this is, listen to Jenkins’ rendition of ‘Queen of the Night’ which is used in the film). That is, until a young critic named Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide) lauds Marguerite in an extremely poetic review, which inspires her to perform outside of her home and to a real audience. Despite her husband’s protest, she continues to train for her moment in a real opera house, as his fear that she will be publicly ridiculed becomes no longer a possibility but an inevitability.

Attempting to make the viewer respond positively to rhythmless, flat, off-key music is a challenge in itself and Giannoli succeeds effortlessly. At first, we’re invited to laugh and cringe at the butchering of Mozart, but, as the film progresses and more is understood about who Marguerite Dumont is, for whom music is their only joy in life, we begin to see the passion behind her terrible voice. At one point, her style of singing is described as “very personal” and, while the comment is made snidely, it’s undoubtedly true. It creates an engaging sympathetic and emotional portrait that is made possible through Catherine Frot’s remarkable performance, carrying the film through many of its flaws.

The most notable retraction in the film’s overall entertaining experience comes from its inconsistency. Giannoli tries to have his cake and eat it with Dumont’s singing, encouraging to see the beauty behind the voice but continue to maliciously relish how awful she sounds. It becomes unnecessarily cruel, particularly in the fifth act, which Giannoli refers to as a “chapter.” The gratuity of having chapters in a film such as this is exemplary of a high-brow pomposity that never seems to work. Within the final scenes of the film, the narrative elapses into a highly fictionalized conclusion that endeavours to be poetically artistic but feels hollow and meaningless.

Marguerite’s saving grace is its characters and the actors behind them. Particularly in Sylvain Dieuaide who performs with a soft, sensitive manner and whose character Giannoli clearly identifies with and encourages the viewer to do likewise. But deserving of the most credit is Denis Mpunga as Madelbos, whose relationship to Marguerite serves as the emotional centre of the story. Mpunga’s and Frot’s chemistry and the ease to which they achieve it deserves to be seen alone. They give the film its poignancy and charm, and, above all, are the reason the beauty behind Dumont’s voice can be seen. Without them the film is nothing, but because of Mpunga and Frot, Marguerite is a pleasant and emotive experience.

Michael O’Sullivan

129 minutes

Marguerite is released 18th March 2016

Marguerite Official Website

 

 

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Review: Triple 9

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DIR: John Hillcoat • WRI: Matt Cook • PRO: Marc Butan, Bard Dorros, Anthony Katagas, Keith Redmon, Christopher Woodrow • DOP: Nicolas Karakatsanis • ED: Dylan Tichenor • DES: Tim Grimes • MUS: Bobby Krlic, Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, Claudia Sarne • CAST: Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer, Norman Reedus

John Hillcoat returns to feature-length filmmaking after four years with Triple 9, a gritty crime thriller in which the cops are the robbers, as four corrupt officers and ex-military commit heists on behalf of the Jewish mafia. As with Hillcoat’s previous film, Lawless, the most striking element is its ensemble cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, and Norman Reedus all come together in this story of blackmail and treachery.

Ex-military officer Terrell Tompkins (Ejiofor) works with former partners Jorge, Marcus (Mackie), and the Welch brothers (Paul and Reedus) to steal from the Russian mafia, an obligation Terrell is forced to do because of his son being held by the head of the Jewish mafia, Irina Vlaslov (Winslet). When one heist isn’t enough for Vlaslov to return Terrell’s son, the men decide to commit a “999” (which is police code for “officer down”), because it will distract law enforcement from the much bigger robbery occurring across town. And as the men determine which officer they should kill, Marcus’s new partner, Chris (Affleck), seems to be the perfect candidate.

Allowing a cast of this size to share an almost equal amount of time on screen means the narrative is more complicated than it may appear. Omitted from the description is Chris’s uncle, Jeff (Harrelson), whose appearance in the film is frequent but whose impact on the narrative is questionable. As are a lot of things in this film. The screenwriter, Matt Cook, confuses complex with confusing when developing the relationship and motivation between Terrell and Irina. Her withholding of Terrell’s son is not quite a kidnapping since the child’s mother is also Irina’s sister nor are there any restraints to seeing one another. As the key motivation for Terrell’s actions, the question of why exactly he has to do anything looms over the film’s entire story. So, too, are some of the actions the Jewish mafia commit over the course of the film, that only make sense from a writing standpoint to create tension, but is utterly baffling within the narrative.

This being a crime thriller, the tone of this movie is emphatically gritty. Everyone has tattoos and a five o’clock shadow, never smile, only scowl, drink Jack Daniels, and speak with low gravelly voices. Even Kate Winslet appears entirely unlike herself with heavy hairspray, heavy makeup, and a Jewish-American accent. By the forceful creation of this noir-esque mood, there’s a hilarious absurdity to its commitment, especially with some of the choices the film makes. While Jeff continues his investigation into the first robbery, he questions Sweet Pea (played by The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams), a cross-dressing prostitute with a neon-pink papillon dog. Likewise, there was and still is a Jewish mafia, but the image of mobsters in stereotypical Jewish attire who do nothing but dispose people in kosher meat trucks throughout the film is unintentionally funny. By inserting these moments into the film, Hillcoat seems self-consciously reluctant to commit to the tone he’s trying desperately to create and makes the overall atmosphere fall flat.

All that aside, Triple 9 has a very smooth and fast pace which makes the film’s set pieces more effective than not. Aside from the two heists, the shootouts in the film utilize the tight locations well enough to create a tense, claustrophobic ambience reminiscent of the concluding moments to Silence of the Lambs. And, though some performances are average at best (particularly Reedus and Ejiofor), Aaron Paul is finally given a character he can work well with, unlike his earlier attempts moving onto the big screen, and Anthony Mackie proves himself to be a compelling performer deserving of more roles outside of the Marvel blockbusters. But, as a whole, the ideas, themes, and talent the film brings together don’t quite blend well enough to be satisfying in this otherwise generic crime thriller.

Michael O’Sullivan

16 (See IFCO for details)

115 minutes

Triple 9 is released 19th February 2016

Triple 9 – Official Website

 

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Short Film Review: The Suffering Kind

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Michael O’Sullivan takes a look at The Suffering Kind, a story about Michael Hannan, a sanitation worker in the town of Newburgh, upstate, New York, who, recently sober, is getting through the days as best he can.

 

Within the current cultural climate, a movie which employs Catholicism without condemnation and hostility is ensured to be immediately striking in this regard. The Suffering Kind is not a religious film but is invested in the fundamental elements a religion provides for a collective: hope and catharsis. Its opening recitation of Patrick Kavanagh’s “The Great Hunger” is appropriate given the theme. The poem’s examination of spiritual, emotional, and psychological starvation emanates through into the contemporary setting of the narrative and sets the tone perfectly for the story about to be told.

Michael Hannon, a garbage collector, attempts to get through the day, as anyone does. He remains affable despite an inner struggle to overcome a crippling alcoholism and drug addiction that numbed the pain of a past trauma involving a woman he loved. Michael receives support from a priest named Jim, who conceals his own struggles and anger, while helping people in the community have an ear they can talk to. And, as memories of the past resurface ever more frequently, the desire to return to a life of addiction becomes a greater temptation for Michael in his despair.

For a story threaded with such sincerity for the heavy thematic issues it concerns, it does so while avoiding the pretentious trappings that many films fall into exploring similar topics, thanks largely to the minute usage of film noir iconography. It makes sense considering the genre’s recounting of people who the American Dream never came to.

Following the excerpt from Kavanagh, a recording of Robert F. Kennedy talks of the American people’s need for education, housing, employment, and “giving young people some hope”, which is then proceeded by shots of the homeless, of 99c stores, and of beaten-up women walking the streets.

Jim delivers a sermon about toxic shame and its ability to make people consider themselves “a mistake.” The scene cuts before Jim can provide the cathartic moment a sermon is supposed to provide. In much the same way, the film’s excoriation of the American Dream is based on its failure to provide a necessary catharsis and hope to a social ennui.

Though little happens in the narrative, director Kevin Liddy wants our attention focussed on the mood of the film and to great success. The dolorous ambience becomes palpable thanks largely to the excellent music, provided by Rori Coleman, who utilizes the unique despondent sound of the violin and saxophone to great effect. Likewise, the cinematography by Declan Quinn, particularly in the shots of Michael’s deceased lover at sunset, capture the noir aesthetic and mood really well.

What flaws the film does have is in the rushed conclusion in its final sequence. The unearned happy ending implied by its closing moments is perhaps intentional (the repetition of Michael’s first lines when seen on camera suggests a cyclical pattern in his struggle between addiction and sobriety) but isn’t fleshed out enough to be made clear in this, otherwise, well-crafted and paced film.

 

The Suffering Kind screens at at 11:40pm February 15th 2016 as part of RTÉ’s short film programme Shortscreen

 

You can read an interview with Kevin Liddy here 

 
 

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